Lemony Snicket is a wonderful, charming pseudonym for the author of the children’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, but who is he, really? And what is A Series of Unfortunate Events all about? With the new Netflix show out, many are wondering about the man behind the mystery. The book series is hugely popular, with three orphans fighting against an evil (but “incredibly good-looking,” as he likes to point out) theater actor with a crew of oddball henchmen that remind us of The Addams Family. Let’s take a look closer at the man behind the book.
Will the Real Lemony Snicket Please Stand Up?
February 28, 1970, Daniel Handler was born, the man who would one day be largely known by his pseudonym, Lemony Snicket. Born in San Francisco, California, Handler was one of two children!
Daniel Handler described his childhood as uneventful, and says of his sister that she is both “fierce” and “loyal.” San Francisco in the seventies was a heady, rebellious place to grow up in, during a revolution of politics, hippies, and music, as well as dark undertones of violence and murder, often drug-fueled. It was a time that could produce a dark, sardonic, morbidly funny writer like Daniel Handler.
Literary Influences of Lemony Snicket
Lemony Snicket, i.e., David Handler, says that he has wanted to be a writer from the earliest times he can remember. His parents tell a funny story about him as a child, saying that he wanted to be a wise mountain man giving advice when he grew up, but he doesn’t recall that.
What he does recall is loving stories. A first deeply loved story and influence that Handler cites is the story The Blue Aspic, by Edward Gorey. The Blue Aspic is a gothic-style story with an Edwardian setting and creepy undertones. The plot is morbid and subversive, and Handler loved it. The influence on his writing is obvious in The Series of Unfortunate Events books, where gloom and doom pervade.
The Moody Jokester Growing Up
Daniel Handler was the son of an accountant and a college dean and described himself in Publishers Weekly as “a bright and obvious person,” who wanted to be “a dark and mysterious person.” In this photo, you can see the bright and obviously delightful person.
Handler also told Publishers Weekly that as a child he didn’t like stories “where everyone joined the softball team and had a grand time or found true love on a picnic.” In high school, Handler and his classmates took a quiz designed to show what they might be when they grew up. Handler convinced his friends to all check the “other” box, and enter PIRATES as their choice. Quite an auspicious beginning. Handler graduated from Lowell High School.
Handler During and After College
After high school graduation from Lowell, Handler attended Wesleyan University. During his time there, in 1990, he won a Poets Prize from the Academy of American Poets. At graduation, Handler was awarded an Olin fellowship, which provided financial support that helped him during the writing of his first novel.
In order to earn a real living, Handler spent a couple of years in the 1990s writing comedy sketches for a nationally syndicated radio show based in San Francisco, called The House of Blues Radio Hour, honing that wicked sense of humor that infuses his later books.
Meeting His Wife & Becoming Lemony Snicket
At Wesleyan University, a wonderful thing happened to Daniel Handler: he met Lisa Brown, a graphic designed and writer, and fell in love. He knew that she was to be his wife.
It was during this time that Handler developed his pseudonym. Handler was researching his first novel, The Basic Eight, and needed some interviews with right-wing political organizations and religious groups, but wanted to avoid getting his name on their mailing list. When asked his name, he replied, “Lemony Snicket.” Handler told NPR in an interview, “And it became among all of my friends, then, a joke. We would write letters to the paper and sign them Lemony Snicket, hoping they would be published, and reserve tables in restaurants under the name Lemony Snicket and all sorts of things like that.”
The First Novel: The Basic Eight
Daniel Handler began writing his first novel after graduation from Wesleyan College. Called The Basic Eight, it is a mysterious and dark view of a young girl’s teenage life.
Famously rejected, according to Handler, thirty-seven mind-boggling times before being accepted, Handler was incredibly persistent in getting his work in the right hands. The novel’s continuous rejection inspired Handler to host a reading series called, “Great Novelists Who Can’t Get Published.” The novel was published in 1999.
Watch Your Mouth
Daniel Handler’s second novel, Watch Your Mouth, was completed before the publication of his first novel, The Basic Eight. Watch Your Mouth follows a more operatic theme, with stage directions and various acts. Harper Collins, the book’s reprint publisher, described it as “incest opera,” mixing Jewish mythology with modern sexuality.
Watch Your Mouth’s second half exchanges the opera form with the form of a 12-step recovery program, as experienced by the protagonist. Watch Your Mouth was published in 2000. Publisher’s Weekly said in a review that the book was so “twisted that even its protagonist can’t keep up with the perverse turns of plot.”
A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning
In 1998, Daniel Handler began writing the beloved A Series of Unfortunate Events books under the pseudonym of Lemony Snicket.
The Bad Beginning is the first of the series (which includes thirteen total books). Three children, the Baudelaires (Klaus, Violet and baby Sunny) have lost their parents in a fire. A bumbling banker, Mr. Poe, is duped by evil Count Olaf, a distant cousin and theatrical actor who never tires of saying he plays a “very handsome” or “very good looking” man. Count Olaf makes the children do chores in his disgusting house, meanwhile coming up with an evil plan to deprive the orphans of their inheritance. The three children all have unique, over the top abilities which eventually enables them to escape Olaf…for now.
Books under Handler’s Real Name
Over the years, Daniel Handler released a number of novels under his actual name. In chronological order they are, The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, Adverbs, Why We Broke Up, and We Are Pirates.
According to Handler’s website, Why We Broke Up is the “winner of a Printz honor, is a long letter from a girl in high school to her ex-boyfriend, returning all the souvenirs of their relationship, illustrated by artist Maira Kalman.” We are Pirates is about “a teenage girl who pulls together a rag tag crew to commit mayhem in the San Francisco Bay, while her hapless father tries to get her home.”
Daniel Handler’s Music
Daniel Handler’s….music? Yup, you read that right. After college, Handler was in two bands: The Edith Head Trio and Tzamboni. Then Handler played accordion on a number of The Magnetic Field’s album, 69 Love Songs. In a box set, Handler does an interview with band leader Stephin Merrit about the album. Handler also appears in the 2009 documentary Strange Powers, about The Magnetic Fields.
He also played accordion with Merritt and The Magnetic Fields, for the Gothic Archives, which provided songs for the audio books in the A Series of Unfortunate Events children’s book series. In the audio commentary of the film Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Handler plays a song about the depression of having leeches in a film. Handler has also written song lyrics for other musical artists.
Controversy at The National Book Awards
The only controversy that Handler has even publicly been involved in was regarding some ill-thought-out remarks that he made at the National Book Awards, where Jacqueline Woodson, a black writer, was being awarded for her young adult fiction.
Woodson and Handler had, by Woodson’s own account, been friends for years. One night at dinner, Woodson had told Handler that she had been allergic to watermelon her whole life. Many moons later, Handler was presenting Woodson with the YA award, when he made the awful remark, “Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your minds.” Handler, seemingly mortified at himself, apologized publicly, saying the remark was deeply inappropriate and “yes, racist,” and donated $110,000 to We Need Diverse Books. Woodson wrote a NYT essay about the situation, saying in part, “In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from. By making light of that deep and troubled history, he showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all. His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.”
Daniel Handler and his wife, Lisa Brown, met in college in San Francisco. After college, they married and moved in together, and years later, their son and only child, Otto, was born. There are no pictures available of Otto Handler online.
In an interview with Terry Gross of NPR, Handler talked about his son. He said something was different since the last time he’d interviewed with Gross, he’d had a child! And his son, who was at the time was nine, was asking him some questions that were forcing him to realize that he didn’t know how to explain the world. His son was asking, for example, about the song by Kraftwerk, “We Are The Robots.” “And he said to me,” Handler said, “Are they pretending to be robots? And I said, yes, they are. And then he said, are the Beatles pretending to be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? And I said, I think they are.” Then Otto asked his father if the band was pretending to be beetles, and Handler said, “And I felt, suddenly, the knowledge of the world just absolutely slipping out of my brain. Why did they call themselves the Beatles? That doesn’t make any sense at all.”
The Trouble Begins: A Box of Unfortunate Events
The first box set of The Series of Unfortunate Events just put the stamp on the already known fact: this series was amazingly successful and beloved. The boxed set included three books in hardcover: The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window.
Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler’s Baudelaire siblings were famous. The box set begins with The Bad Beginning. In this book, the three orphans (or are they) encounter their disgusting caretaker, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, bad acting, and too many chores. The second book, The Reptile Room, sends the orphans to their friendly, bug-loving relative, but the devious Olaf is always waiting… And in the third book, The Wide Windo, the children are subjected to terrible weather, leeches, and more heartbreak.
The Seriously Fortunate Movie
When Jim Carrey is starring in the movie based off your books…I guess you are pretty happy. Jim Carrey played Count Olaf, and the movie also starred Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine and Jude Law as the voice of Lemony Snicket, among others. The film was well received and won an award for best makeup.
It opens with Lemony Snicket, saying, “I’m sorry to say that this is not the movie you will be watching. The movie you are about to see is extremely unpleasant. If you wish to see a film about a happy little elf, I’m sure there is still plenty of seating in theater number two. However, if you like stories about clever and reasonably attractive orphans, suspicious fires, carnivorous leeches, Italian food and secret organizations, then stay, as I retrace each and every one of the Baudelaire children’s woeful steps. My name is Lemony Snicket, and it is my sad duty to document this tale.”
A Box of Unfortunate Events: The Situation Worsens
The next boxed Series of Unfortunate Events included The Situation Worsens, containing three books: The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy, and The Ersatz Elevator.
In The Miserable Mill, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are sent to Paltryville to work in a lumber mill, and of course there is terrible luck and disaster throughout the story. In The Austere Academy, the unlucky orphans attend Prufrock Preparatory School, where they notice the enormous stone arch bearing the school’s motto Memento Mori or “Remember you will die.” In The Ersatz Elevator, and elevator eats them! Just kidding. The children live in fancy apartment in the city near where it all started, and more bad things happen.
The Delima Deepens: A Box of Unfortunate Events
Again, three hardcover books of the Series of Unfortunate Events are included. First, The Vile Village, then The Hostile Hospital, and lastly, The Carnivorous Carnival.
The Vile Village is described as, ” I can think of no single reason why anyone would want to open a book containing such unpleasant matters as migrating crows, an angry mob, a newspaper headline, the arrest of innocent people, the Deluxe Cell, and some very strange hats.” The Hostile Hospital as, “I’m sorry to say that the Baudelaire orphans will spend time in a hospital where they risk encountering a misleading newspaper headline, unnecessary surgery, an intercom system, anesthesia, heart-shaped balloons, and some very startling news about a fire.” And The Carnivorous Carnival as, “The siblings must confront a terrible lie, a caravan, and Chabo the wolf baby.”
The Gloom Looms: A Box of Unfortunate Events
The next in The Series of Unfortunate Events boxed sets included The Gloom Looms, which includes books The Slippery Slope, The Grim Grotto and The Penultimate Peril.
In the first book of the set, The Slippery Slope, we find, “The tenth book in this outrageous publishing effort features more than the usual dose of distressing details, such as snow gnats, an organised troupe of youngsters, an evil villain with a dastardly plan, a secret headquarters and some dangerous antics you should not try at home.” In The Grim Grotto, “the intrepid siblings delve further into the dark mystery surrounding the death of their parents and the baffling VFD organization.” And in The Penultimate Peril, things just get worse.
The Last Unfortunate Event: The End
The final book of the tragic story of the Buedelaire orphans is aptly titled, The End. The Amazon description reads, “The thirteenth and final installment in the groundbreaking series will answer readers’ most burning questions: Will Count Olaf prevail? Will the Baudelaires survive? Will the series end happily? If there’s nothing out there, what was that noise?”
As to what end the three unlucky orphans meet? Well, according to Bustle, it involves an island, pirate-types, a death, poison, a birth, family origins, another death, and sailing away on the sea to the unknown, “Lemony Snicket has reached the end of his research, and we’ll never know what other misfortune the Baudelaires may have encountered.”
The Netflix Show
The newest incarnation of the tragic three Baudelaire orphans is a Netflix series starring “Doogie Howser” or Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf, and Joan Cusack as the completely befuddled, sweet and charming Justice Strauss. (Why couldn’t she have taken in the children! Then there would be no series, I suppose.) Alfre Woodard plays the frightened Aunt Jo, and a new cast of child actors take on the roles of the three orphans.
Neil Patrick Harris said about Handler, “He was very involved with a lot of stuff. He even helped write the theme song. And he’s in the show, you’ll see him in the actual piece. He’s our own little Alfred Hitchcock. He was very involved in the writing, as he should have been.”
Onward, Daniel Handler
What is Daniel Handler doing now? The better question is probably what isn’t he doing. The man is multi-talented and like his creations, very curious about the world. Handler talked about the end of his Series of Unfortunate Events as nostalgic, “A little. It’s like watching your baby learn to walk or your child graduate from college … but that doesn’t mean I’d want to do it again.”
He told Bookseller interviewer Caroline Horn that hsi passion for writing has not dimmed a whit. “I plan to keep writing for children and adults,” he said. “My problem isn’t the search for ideas but how to whittle the ideas down.” Then he added in perfect Lemony Snicket mode, “If no one pays any more attention to me again as a writer, well, that will be exactly what I predicted all along.”